Merry & Bright

Dreaming of… a White Christmas?

There’s a local radio station that starts playing Christmas music before Thanksgiving, and after Thanksgiving plays nothing but.  This extravagance used to irritate me.  I suspected commercialism and avoided the station through the holidays like the flu.  But this year, “White Christmas” in Sinatra’s voice made me nostalgic, full of uncommercial cravings.  Perhaps something about having grown children and faraway siblings evoked a hunger for figments of my own childhood– I don’t know.  Whatever it was, I opted in on the holiday station as often as I had access to a radio, hoping for more of the soothing sounds of Christmas Past.

May Your Days Be Merry & Bright…

Merry & Bright Days… what are those?  Some of us occasionally wonder— I know a few people who are weathering dark days, crisis and cataclysm and heartbreak all.   Still… I think, at last, that I’m learning to recognize the merry and bright ones when they come.  I actually get them a lot.  It used to be that I didn’t notice their arrival, as overshadowed as they were by my Great Expectations.   But years of experience (and the need to survive them) are teaching me to see almost blinding brightness in the ordinary, to accept what is, love what I’ve got, and be merry in the hazardous (and exhilarating) process of working dreams into reality.   These aren’t easy lessons— but their cost enhances their worth.

I see evidence of these lessons in the merriness and brightness of the lives around me, people choosing to celebrate despite stacked odds– illness, loss, estrangement, homesickness, poverty.  Some of you reading this should know that… your hopeful weathering brings us all joy.   More proof, another gift making our days merrier and brighter.

And May All Your Christmases Be White, at Least Metaphorically

I’ll share a few lines that my dad (who historically is a reluctant correspondent) wrote in a little newsletter insert for my parents’ outgoing Christmas cards.  The newsletter alone is miraculous, considering my father’s epistolary taciturnity (whew!).  Furthermore, this dad, who ordinarily would be tramping through the snow on his little farm (stalking wildlife, inspecting berry canes), and indulging in the culinary delights of the season, can’t have any of it.  A perplexing illness has plagued him all fall and winter, sapping his strength and pitching his already conservative celiac diet into food oblivion.  He can’t tramp, nor can he hold down much– not even beta-carotene-rich mangoes.  Which mangoes my mother esteems greatly for their nutrition.  (She’s feeling a little betrayed by the super-food angels right now).

Anyway, here are those lines:

“Life is just good… We will likely be here for another year or two, so please, understand this.  You have an open invitation to come, especially in August, and pick a berry or two, and stay in a free bed and breakfast.  Don’t wait too long, there are no guarantees beyond these: we love you, God loves you and us, and life is good.

(photo courtesy of my father in law, aka Santa Claus)

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In Which We Address Writer’s Block

Kittens, Crabapple Jelly, and “Nearly Dead”

(Or Writer’s Block)

 

I’m not the first person to wrestle with writer’s block, or to complain about the wrestle.  And I’m not the first to realize that the best way past it is simply through.  Just getting it done. Which is pretty much all I learned from my petty research on the subject (my sources include Google and a biography on Margaret Mitchell).

Studying writer’s block did little to help me overcome it.  But it was a fascinating diversion.

My sister, who I think is a very good writer, recently shared that while she is wistfully aware that writing is one of the major reasons for her mortal existence, the thought of actually doing it makes her nauseous.  I get it.  Hungry to create, but so afraid of failing that I sabotage the joy of creating.  Or avoid it altogether.

My sister and I are not the only ones who psyche ourselves out.  Knowing that I’m in good company does comfort me a bit.

I’ve been writing this particular post for weeks– no, months– coming up with four or five wordy, complicated, entirely confusing drafts.  I moved the most finished ones from WordPress to my notepad because it hurt my soul to think of deleting them, after all my labor.  But I’ll probably never use them— drafts filled with ruminations about Beautiful Feet on the Mountains, Paint Night, Open Boats, and the mysterious differences between   artists and “makers”.

Right now?*  All I really want to write about is crabapple jelly, my kitten, and how fainting should qualify as a near death experience.

But You Don’t Say It (or Crabapple Jelly)

There’s not much left to say about writer’s block.  But crabapple jelly?  Mmm.  I could almost wax lyrical.  Crabapple jelly is a lovely, mystical outgrowth of the ancient, somewhat controversial Apple tradition, whose roots reach back into history, beyond Johnny Appleseed and the English midwife’s cottage garden, through Newton, Ivanhoe, the Norse gods…  and at last to the Trojan War— possibly into Helen’s own back yard.  Crabapples are the Apple Original, the mother Pomme.  Beyond Trojan heroes and villains, the Apple’s role in the Garden, if it had any beyond nouragement**, was blessed.   But that’s a tangent.

Also, I understand that besides being a sweet-tart preserve, “Crab Apple Jelly” is an anthology of sweet-tart short stories by Frank O’ Connor.   What a lovely concept… sweet-tart short stories.  I think I’ll make crabapple jelly, and then savor short stories and toast in front of the fire some cold November morning when the girls are at school.   Read some, write some.   A way past writer’s block!  Via crabapple jelly.

Cat Gotcha Tongue

What would I say about my kitten?  Well, I love that she purrs.  Purring is magical, like crabapple jelly– just one more proof of God’s hand in the creature.

I also love that she wends.  Between my feet while I’m doing dishes, between blankets and pillows when I’m making the bed, between the banister rails when I go up and down stairs (she’s stalking me, thinking she’s a leopard).  I love that she is especially clownish and wild-eyed lemur-like when she wants to be picked up, and that of all things, she loves to have her tummy rubbed (more magic: possibly she’s not a leopard or a lemur, she’s a Labrador).  I love that I cannot pin down what she is after all– milkweed stardust fluff eider-thistledown, leopard lemur Labrador– and that there is no possible way to discern her thoughts, though clearly, she has them (she is a regular schemer).

I don’t love that in a wild, leopard-lemur-Labrador-like move, she knocked down one of my blue sparkly glass things and broke the lid (her concern was not entirely believable).  But I’ve forgiven her, and will continue to put my hope in more magic.  Apples in a basket.

Not Dead Yet

And what have I to do with near death experiences, or even fainting for that matter?  Not much, besides the fact that I’m wriggling past writer’s block (with cat-like tread, she said), and fainting and death are something to talk about.  Last July some dearly beloveds and I nearly went down in a vintage boat (circa 1970’s) on Flathead Lake in Montana.  It was a sobering moment (though not too awful; we had on life jackets and could still see the shoreline).  But fainting in September– months later and for other reasons– was a lot scarier and significantly more uncomfortable than facing the possibility of going down in a boat in July.  Partly because the boat in July didn’t completely sink, so… drowning remained theoretical, while the fainting was for real.

Still.  Fainting bypasses theoretical drowning and ranks second after choking in all of my near-death experiences so far (I almost died by carrot twice).  I’m not a fainter by custom, trade, or penchant—I object to pretty much anything along the whole Fainting-as-conspiracy spectrum, from the breeding of the ultimate scapegoat (***), to the cinched-tight corsets of Scarlett’s genre.  I hope I never faint again, nor choke on a carrot or even a bit of apple either.  May we all remain forever novices to swooning and choking.  It’s not cute or fun in any way.

Back To the Block

This naturally brings me back to Writer’s Block, which is, metaphorically speaking, a sort of Near Death Experience, a more than theoretical Sinking Boat, an almost literal Choke. Assuming we ever get past it (because if we don’t, it is Actual Death, Snow White’s last suffocating gasp spent beneath glass without the benefit of True Love’s Kiss).  Having researched writer’s block (you smile, and you’re right; I might as well have been ironing the cheesecloth for my crabapple jelly), I have garnered perspective and advice for us all on the subject.  Which I’ll share, with a challenge.  And then I will leave us to our own devices.

Advice On Tackling Writer’s Block (And Other Creative Paralysis)

“You can’t wait for inspiration.  You have to go after it with a club.”  — Jack London

“I learned to produce whether I wanted to or not. It would be easy to say oh, I have writer’s block, oh, I have to wait for my muse. I don’t. Chain that muse to your desk and get the job done.” — Barbara Kingsolver

“Quantity produces quality.  If you only write a few things, you’re doomed.” — Ray Bradbury

“What I try to do is write.  I may write for two weeks ‘the cat sat on the mat, that is that, not a rat.’  And it might be just the most boring and awful stuff.  But I try.  When I’m writing, I write.  And then it’s as if the muse is convinced that I’m serious and says, ‘Okay.  Okay.  I’ll come.'” — Maya Angelou

And especially this:

“Don’t take anyone’s writing advice too seriously” — Lev Grossman

The Challenge (Heigh ho)

To myself and anyone else aspiring to create wonderful things– who also has happened to read  this (maybe my sisters, brothers, a handful of friends, a cousin or two), I extend an invitation and challenge:  Just do it.  Just write (0r whatever it is you are longing to do but are not doing because only heaven knows why).  Pre-dawn, midnight, or like Lev Grossman, in ten minute snippets and other stolen moments, just do it.  Go after inspiration with a club, chain your muse to your desk, write nonsense if you have to, don’t take anyone’s advice too seriously, and remember to never take counsel from your fears (I think that was Stonewall Jackson).

My daughter invited me to join her in a challenge to write 50,000 words of fiction during the month of November.  I’m already behind in the challenge, but actually, I’m days ahead of where I would be had I not started at all.  Amongst my paragraphs and pages of gibberish so far, I think there are a few gems.  Out there, with you, dearly beloveds, are a whole lot more.

Heigh ho.

Post Script

*This post convalesced in rough draft form for weeks through October; I almost deleted it but couldn’t bear to give up on one more.  So I’m publishing it.  Having made the crabapple jelly ages ago.  It is delicious.

** “nouragement”: Ogden Nash’s word (Love Under The Republicans– Or Democrats) which I take to be a perfect hybrid between nourishment and encouragement.  Nash uses it sarcastically;  I don’t.

(***)  The ultimate scapegoat:  Fainting Goats.  People bred goats with a genetic disorder that predisposed them to fainting when stressed to serve as decoys amongst herds of sheep.  If wolves threatened the herd, the sheep would run and the goats would tip over in a stiff-legged faint, serving as a perfect distraction for the sheep getaway.  Grisly and sad, and one more nuance to the ancient term “scapegoat”.

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Further Ado: The Best Intentions

Promises To Keep, And The Best Intentions

Like many people, I have sometimes made promises I didn’t keep (such as my promise to myself to write consistently on my blog).  And like most of us, I have never wanted this mistake to become a habit.  My kids might beg to differ, depending on their mood and/or which pet they’re remembering with angst-laced fondness, but I insist:  my promise-keeping intentions are sterling (notice my most recent: a new crazy-eyed pet, Ophelia Evangeline The Fluffy.  “Kitten” for short).

So sterling, in fact, that in order not to break them, I mostly refrain from making any promises at all.  Fear of commitment, maybe.  But it’s an honest fear.

Nevertheless

I am making this promise to myself one more time:  I will write daily.  Whether my words reach Everyday Bloom or not, I will write.  If it’s only one paragraph on the back of an envelope, a quick sketch of  five little neighbor girls parading down the sidewalk with an empty refrigerator box covering their heads— like five child-sized, wayward pallbearers who’ve lost their way in a funeral parade—  even if it is only to record this, I will write. Every day (which to me means…what… roughly five times a week?  Four?), I will write.

I’ve also promised myself to do art– sketch or paint or glue rocks to jars– for at least twenty minutes every day.   On the train on Saturday, I sketched the faces of two oblivious passengers.  Trivia:  One had a wonderfully long nose, reminding me of a more hipster Roger from 101 Dalmatians.

Today I will sketch… zinnias, I think.

Whew.  Yikes.  These are serious promises to make.  But with Everyday Bloom as my witness, I commit.

The End…?

Or Not.  Regarding Loose Ends and Starting Places…

But that’s not all.  Well, it’s all of the committing, but it’s not all of the writing.  Last week, while I stalled, I Googled “writing tips”.   Aside:  According to several prominent advice-giving authors, Googling when you’re trying to write is counter-productive.  Their counsel?   Stay away from mindless distractions, namely the internet (also ironing pillowslips and alphabetizing recipes).  Anyway, I read that it’s best to stop writing while you’re on a roll, while there’s still something left to say.  The  idea being that the next time you sit down to write, you have a place to start.

Like this:

Last Winter, I Went to College.   I took two classes, both of which required a lot of writing.   Short stories, commentaries on literary masterpieces.  Delightful, incredibly fulfilling.  The results will both be fun to share here, and will offer a leaping off point for further writing.

Last Summer, I Visited Several Cemeteries, Narrowly Escaped Shipwreck, Met a Man Who Carves Horses, Read (And Finished) “Great Expectations”, and Grew Magical Pumpkins.  Other Things happened too, like Ophelia Evangeline the Fluffy (aka Kitten, who is, even as I type, nipping at my elbow for attention), Roadtrips with Daughters, Adventures With Sisters and Friends, and Extreme Seamstressing, or The Sewing of Many Bodices.  Look at all the things there are to write about!

Also I Started Taking French on Duo.  Which isn’t going well; once I got past the first few lessons, I began making so many mistakes that I got kicked off the app until the next day (Duo’s way of encouraging its users to buy credits, which I won’t).  I have to wait a day before I can start each lesson over again.  Sort of like Groundhog Day, with less French and no donuts.

That is all.  Adieu for now.

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Celebrations and Monuments: Raising the Barn

wedding dance

–Musing On Celebrations And Monuments: Reception Story

Since we’ve seen a lot of them this last year.  Summer and  fall waxed sumptuous with weddings in particular– a season of cake, flowers, and fare-thee-wells.  I can think of six nuptial celebrations between June and October.  These are big events–monumental even–especially when one is at your own door.   In my case this summer, in my lap and pulling on my hair.

Because (remember) Maurya, my second daughter,  engaged in June, got married at the end of July.

I was the bride-appointed wedding planner.  Maurya didn’t want anything to do with planning her party.  Happy to schedule the temple for her wedding ceremony, happy to collaborate with her intended on the honeymoon destination, but absolutely no…  Not the reception.  She was grateful she had a mother to handle it.  A couple of years ago, she’d texted me from a friend’s bridal shower: “I’d rather poke my own eyes out than plan my reception.”

(The Reluctant Wedding Planner)

 Mother Goose/The Reluctant Wedding Planner

I’d always imagined I’d love carte blanche as wedding planner.  I am, after all, right brained…and a romantic.  But in real life (with a budget, a bride, and a deadline), it was mostly terrifying.  Sometimes, yes, exhilarating (like when the flowers I’d planted in pots began blooming).  But then I’d make the mistake of peeking at Pinterest again.  Pinterest, riddled with the opulent, the ridiculous, and the beguiling.  Host of centuries’ worth of unrealistic expectations.  A schizophrenic outgrowth of today’s entitlement paradigm, the DIY movement, and our misogynic history (rank with dowries and mail order/trophy brides).  And keeper of some of the prettiest pictures I’ve ever seen.  The most tempting pins targeted my adolescent longings for the ethereal with eery acuity: soft lights filtered through gauze, antique urns overflowing with blossoms, Irish linen, vintage chandeliers.  Each one promised a world that exists only in photoshopped pictures and fairy tales.

Awkwardly balancing our narrow budget/timeline and my teenage dream/cultural angst—and ignoring the whining of my inner Crazy Puritan Woman (wary of enjoyment, suspicious of abundance, she relishes only the “guilt” in “guilty pleasure”)– we set out to make a reception for our daughter.   It helped that Frank is left brained (and OCD); he made lists, took measurements, pre-hung curtains, strung wires, ran cables.   It didn’t help that we hadn’t saved for the date, and that we’d learned of the engagement just before we sent Ez off on his mission, whilst in the throes of landscaping our newly acquired bare dirt.  Nor did it help that I stubbornly persisted in the belief that I could make everything—bridesmaid’s skirts, groomsmen’s bow ties, wedding cakes, cream puffs, hor d’ouevres, decorations— from scratch (Maurya chose a dress off the rack; she looked simply beautiful, made Dennison’s year, and saved me from myself).  As I recall the DIY I feverishly took on, I realize that Crazy Puritan Woman did find a way to assert herself after all.  Insisting that Beauty pay in blood, sweat, and tears for her unbridled loveliness.

At any rate, we felt a little deranged sometimes.  Occasionally, we whispered to ourselves, “Why Are We Doing This??”.  Our only good answer:  “Because We Love Maurya And Want Her  to Know It”.   We do love Maurya (Dennison too), and it is paramount to us that she know it.  I think though that last summer, we questioned the efficacy of the means.  It seemed, at least for a while, a preposterous way to show love.

(Bride, With Cake Pans)

Bride, with cake pans

But The Kindness of People…

Until the week of the reception, when the kindness of people put celebrations and monuments in perspective.

People offered to help, texting and calling from near and far.  The offerers were insistent.  Apparently, our celebration was important to other people besides us.  A friend helped me make tart shells; another helped make cream puffs.  I had a cream puff filling party in answer to even more offers of help.  Despite my stress-induced ADD and the cream’s nasty tendency to spooge out of the tops of the pastry bags and all over everything bound by the laws of gravity, my friends filled hundreds of cream puffs, saving me at least two sleepless nights of cream puff stuffing all by myself.  They even washed all my dishes afterwards.

An aunt and cousin dropped by and chatted while we gathered tulle skirts.  Cousins collected empty cans for me (centerpiece containers, a clever idea I may have seen on Pinterest).

One friend lent me tin tubs.  Another lent me all her cake pans….arguably enabling me to wander further into the nether reaches of DIY craziness…but in truth, it was so kind (left to my own devices I’m sure I would have tried to make cake pans from tin foil and hub caps).  The morning of the wedding, her stack of pans (their mission accomplished) became an abstract but meaningful detail in a couple of Maurya’s bridal photos.  Which were taken by my brother in law David Stark, choreographed by my sister Mara Lee (that task alone!  the shoot—and the editing afterwards!  an unimaginable gift).

My sister Leah became my wedding cake doula, saving me from disaster at the midnight hour by Making The Frosting, using her own favorite recipe.  I cannot overstate the save.  It was a sort of Sleeping Beauty/finger on the spindle intervention:  I’ve only had a handful of cake successes in my life, and was crumbling under the Crazy Puritan Woman dictum that now, on the threshold of my most important cake occasion yet, I would pay for the hubris of thinking I could actually make my own daughter’s wedding cake (notice that Puritan Woman is not only crazy, she’s also a hypocrite: she insisted I DIY everything in the first place).  A certainty that Maurya’s reception would be the scene of The Most Epic Cake Fail Of The Century grew ever more perilous in my mind; it was mere hours away from becoming a self-fulfilled prophecy.  Leah stepped between me and my self-imposed cake fate with experience, an objective mind, and a delicious whipped cream cheese frosting.

(Scullery Maiding aka The Great Cake Rescue)

the kindness of people: reluctant wedding planner, with cake filling

naked wedding cake with fruit and flowers(Naked Cake.  On Purpose)

My sister Nola showed up with her best friend MacKenzie and flats of blueberries from my parent’s farm.  Wafting the nonchalant breeze of Columbia River Gorge Bohemia—very relaxing.  Granted, the blueberries weren’t originally meant for us.  But somehow, they became ours… some even made their way onto the wedding cakes.  Not enough good things can be said about home grown blueberries, Northwest breezes, or the bearers of them.

Another dear friend and his wife agreed to man the refreshment tables (despite the fact that he was recovering from a tumor and a collapsed lung).  She asked me, “So, how do you want me to do this?  Do you need a Refreshment Nazi, telling all the little kids that they can only have one, or do you want me to hover invisibly in the background, and refill as needed?”  Her husband just smiled his mellow smile.  When it came to it, their Un-invisible, gracious friendliness lent warmth and ease to the party.  I don’t think anyone else could have done better.

reception in the bowery

Raising The Barn

The day of the wedding, we had three hours to set up for the party afterward.  I had no idea how we’d pull it off…but there was the kindness of  people again.  My parents, Frank’s parents, my siblings, Frank’s siblings, nieces, nephews…some helping in the kitchen with hor d’oevres, some packing sparkly breakable things in boxes to be moved to the party site.  Some hanging lights and curtains at the bowery, some loading and unloading furniture (yes, furniture), boxes, food, and really heavy pots full of flowers.  It was like moving day…and we had all just that morning been to a wedding (and a luncheon put on by the groom’s parents in between–a delightful affair done with excellent taste)!  Yet no one complained about the insanity of it…no one griped about the wedding planner, the demented person who wanted an entire house moved There and Back Again in one evening, just for a party.  As a matter of fact, everywhere I turned,  people said the nicest things about how beautifully it was coming together, or asked how they could help now.  Instead of feeling exhausted, I was buoyed up.  Crazy Puritan Woman shuffled her feet in the dusty yard, packed her black valise, and trudged back to Massachusetts in her ugly, practical shoes.

The party was magical.  We felt so loved (it struck me then, still seems to me now, that attending each other’s celebrations is an act of generosity, a social kindness, and I am grateful for it).  Our daughter and her groom were emotionally present (contrary to the culturally held standard for newlyweds), and beaming.  My sister Nola helped with the music (she’s got great taste in music), and my brother Daniel spontaneously orchestrated a chair dance like the one in Fiddler on the Roof.  We had a multitude of photographers, from my nephew Doug, who had rigged up a digital “mobile photo booth”, to my sister Andie, who asked people to kiss each other as she took photos, to Mara and David who made the wedding party look fabulous.  I couldn’t have asked for more.  It was one of the highest points of my life (“Sunrise, Sunset” kept going through my head—also “I Cannot Believe it, Did You Ever See A Night Like This”).  And when it came to an end, people were still there—plus more!  Big burly Barney cousins (and Super Kent), Aunt Marcielle and her van.  So many people helped clean up.  It came down fast.  A miracle to me.

(Chair Dance, a’ la Fiddler on The Roof)

fiddler on the roof wedding chair dance

fiddler on the roof moment at the receptionWe–with our community– had built a monument.   More than a beautiful  tribute to Maurya and Dennison (and a communal pledge of hope and confidence in the life they’ve ventured into), it was a deeply generous expression of love for all of us. No man (or woman) is an island (Except maybe for Crazy Puritan Woman–but then she’s just a figment of someone’s imagination).

I’ve never experienced an actual barn-raising, but I like to think it would feel similar to our celebration/monument building, how it gathers a community in a cooperative spirit, creates the bond of not only a common goal, but also a common affection.   And how it marks the significance of an event—a beginning, an embarking, a promise of future good will.  How it is both celebratory and rigorous, all at once.

wedding dancing

I’ll end with snapshots of Maurya and Dennison’s celebration, and a few from a couple of other wedding receptions/barn raisings I visited this summer and fall. I so love all these folks…

more bridesmaid anticsbridesmaidsbridesmaid's shoesgroom and his menfamily pictureimg_1417p1040549

mobile photo booth

Kissin at the partykissin at the party 2more almost kissingNola Joy & MacKenzie, bringing Northwest breezeslet's kissa real kiss mom and dad kissinimg_0180family kiss

p1040516dsc05346-2dancing with daddy

Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch….(Chase and Alicia’s Reception in Central Oregon)

cowboy meets princess wedding reception

cowboy/princess wedding reception

img_20161008_170832

And in Rexburg, Kissing my Favorite Leprechauns at Kenya & Larry’s Wedding

kissing the cousinscousin dance

The End

(Photos Courtesy Primarily of David & Mara Stark and  Doug Leonard, also Andrea Hill,

Frank.  And me.)

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Regarding Love, Actually

bridal photo by David Stark

Love Actually, For Reals And Keeps

When she was born I couldn’t quite believe it. That she was real, that she was here, that the contractions heralding her arrival were actually over.  That she was, after all that impossible agony, intact.  Even though I’d been through it all before with her older sister—the incoherent pain, the sensation of delivery, the overwhelming wonder and joy as a gentle new soul (my baby!) was placed warm and naked on my chest.  Love, actually.

Strange how we are so surprised when actual experience displaces our carefully constructed theories.  When fact eclipses the anticipated.  You’d think we could handle it better…after all, sometimes we wait a long time, rehearsing possibilities, planning, anticipating.  This is a recurring theme for me, the clumsy exchange of expectations for the reality they can’t possibly approximate.   Reality is so…wide and deep.  And rich.  I am convinced you cannot know it until you experience it, and accept it.

Like when Maurya decided This Was Love, Actually, and Got Married.

temple photo by David StarkI may have wanted, on some level, The Perfect Match for Maurya (“To Infinity, And Beyond!”), but still.   Believing I was too smart now (after all I’ve been through) to be disconcerted by the expectation/reality schism, I was open and welcome to a multitude of possibilities as Maurya dated.  And there were many possibilities…she dated a lot.  Broke a few hearts, which was hard to witness; was broken hearted herself, which was unbearable.  A few months before she met Dennison, she dreamt that I begged her not to give out her name, number, and address.  So of course (dreams being the logical phenomenon that they are), she had pizza delivered to the house.  “What Have You Done?”  I cried as we ran for the door.  “Now You Will Never, Ever Be Safe!”  Despite my protests, she opened the door, and there, on the front porch, stood all the boys she’d ever dated.  One was shirtless, flexing muscles.  Another tried to shoulder him off the porch.  They had formed a support group, had come to air their grievances, or enact an intervention.  The dream goes on (the boys argue over who will be the spokesman, for instance); the details I’ve shared might be slightly squiggly.  The point is:  Maurya had lots of options, and was apprehensive about the eventual outcome.  So was I, though I tried hard not to be (mothers should always be fearless and confident in their children’s future, right?  This is about as easy for me as not getting scared when a dog is about to bite, or a bee to sting, because the fear smell will only make them sting or bite more).

And then she chose someone.  Out of all the possibilities (chance encounters in airports, along mountain trails, on a large island), she chose.

You Must Choose…Wisely!

black and white wedding photo by David StarkI have liked Dennison from the first, I really have.  He is kind, smart, wry.  I like him but I didn’t think he’d last (no one else had); there was still a world of possibilities for Maurya to consider.  She didn’t think he’d last either, really; they hadn’t been dating  long when she sort of broke his heart for a minute (translation: week) while she contemplated never seeing him again.  I was privately ok with this; after all, Dennison was nice, but he wasn’t Abraham Lincoln or Atticus Finch or even Superman, all of whom seemed like better options to me (though I wasn’t counting on them).   Ultimately Maurya decided she wanted Dennison in her life…indefinitely.  The thought of permanent severances made her squeamish.  Being together seemed to make both of them very happy.   This had to be good (Maybe Dennison would grow up to be a little like Atticus Finch).

photo by David Starkphotography by David StarkSo that when Maurya told us they were discussing marriage, I was both relieved, and…well.   It’s not that I was disappointed. I was just…rattled.  What do you do when reality looks nothing like what you were trying really hard not to hope for?  When Superman and Lincoln send their regrets, and you’re in the Cheesecake Factory watching your daughter snuggle with a nice fellow who reminds you vaguely of a very young, slightly hipster Hugh Grant?

groom photo by David Starkgroom's photo by David Starkgroom wedding photo by David StarkDennison, old fashioned and gentlemanly as it turns out, had arranged the Cheesecake Factory meeting so he could respectfully state his intentions to the parents (apparently, since “Fiddler On The Roof”,  no one asks permission anymore).  Maurya was there because she didn’t want to miss the show and had invited herself; Frank was there because he totally approved and was, after all, the Daddy.

dsc04816And I was there because I couldn’t, in good conscience, be anywhere else.  I fumbled for words, tongue tied with totally inane advice and the best intentions.  “Scotty, beam me up”, echoed ridiculously in my head.

To Be The Mother of the Bride, Actually…Or Not To Be.  Maybe Not the Right Question…

Through most of Maurya’s brief engagement, I found myself yearning again and again for a transporter, for a way back to the familiar.   No matter how I tried, I couldn’t take in reality’s enormity.  And it is enormous…all the years of responsibility, of being smitten again and again by that wonder and joy I felt the morning she was born (like when she interviewed the chickens about animal rights, played “Pie Jesu” on the piano with those beautiful, long fingers, or sang “Skinny Love” into a microphone at the mouth of a canyon in Provo at sunset).  All the long, breath-held moments of investing in and protecting her happiness, only to finally actually realize something that I’d accepted in theory but hadn’t really—her fate isn’t in my hands after all.  It’s in hers—and Dennison’s.  I can only watch.

And keep on loving.

mama photo by David StarkI tried to enjoy the moments as they came (strange, too, how we can be filled with love and awe, but enjoyment still evades us).

There were truly wonderful moments to be savored.

Like Maurya trying on wedding dresses.  She was so, so beautiful in everything she tried on.  I could hardly take it in.  Or Dennison trying on suits, clicking his heels when he found the right combination of suit and shoes—or was it that a suit was further proof to him that she really would be his?  His vulnerability and delight in Maurya are his most endearing qualities to me.

couple picture by David StarkOr taking engagement photos…such lovely moments, such a lovely couple—but what on earth?  What are they doing?  Who is that boy?  Will she really be happy?

I was still off kilter the morning of the wedding.  Maurya, eager to get going, was distracted in her heels and white dress, her graceful beauty reminiscent of the tiny baby, wriggling warm and fragile and wonderful in my arms.  Both real and ephemeral, a gentle soul I could hold but couldn’t, after all, keep.

Frank and I arrived a little late at the temple.  Maurya was already inside, waiting for me to bring things she’d forgotten (this is traditional, the forgetting things).  I was struggling not to be grumpy because we were late and it was our daughter’s wedding and I was off kilter.  The first person I recognized inside was my mother in law.  Overwhelmed, I hugged her like she was my Scotty, there to personally beam me back to somewhere more familiar and comfortable.  Eventually, after a bit of confusion over lost and still forgotten items (another family tradition, the comedy of errors), and a quick, sweet moment in the bride’s dressing room with my daughter,  I was led to the sealing room where Maurya and Dennison would be married.  For awhile I was completely alone; I had the room all to myself.  Struggling against tears, I was totally ok with that.  I breathed in.  Breathed out (and in, and out…).  Looked around the room.  The altar, covered with a dainty doily probably crocheted by someone’s sweet grandmother.  I miss both of mine.  Looked up at the ceiling.  Scrolled, diaphanous gold leaf and pale florals— One of my favorite blues.  The chandelier, a thousand crystal twinkles, a quiet wink, a nod.   I’d been in this room, or rooms like it, so many times before.  Peace enveloped and embraced me.   I knew this place; all was well.

I do believe in love.

I do believe in love photo by David StarkDuring the ceremony, my mother sat next to me, and in a rare move, reached over and took my hand, and held it.  I remembered her crying at my wedding, a couple and a half decades ago.  She was crying again.  My heart went out to her in that moment past, facing a reality I’d had no idea of till now.  I was so grateful she was with me, again.  Still.

And I felt truly hopeful and happy for my daughter and her new husband.  All is well.  No matter how it goes, it will be all right.

mother daughter wedding picture by David Stark

mother and bride photo by David Stark This reminds me of our family mantra, a Legendary Frank/Daddy quote:

“Everything works out in the end.  If it hasn’t worked out, it isn’t the end yet.”

Watching them now, Maurya and Dennison… knowing a little of what lies ahead because I’ve been there, I think of John Lennon’s “Grow Old Along With Me”….”

“Grow old along with me,

the best is yet to be.

When our time has come

We will be as one

—God bless our love, God bless our love”

God Bless Their Love

bride and groom photo by David Stark

bridal photo by David Stark

By The Way:

All of these photos, speaking of love actually, were taken and edited by my brother in law, David Stark.  Hours of work.  My sister Mara Lee Stark helped choreograph—which basically means that she and David made Maurya and Dennison comfortable enough to be themselves.  Amazing photos, wonderful people.  Thank you David and Mara Lee.  And Maurya and Dennison.  I love you.

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Regarding Dirt, Again

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The Dichotomy of Dirt, and Other Things

Sometimes, dirt is heavenly.  The smell, the rich, cakey texture, the possibilities and promises in its fertile expanse. Sometimes, dirt is a necessary evil, a parched, rock strewn wilderness hindering passage to The Promised Land. As a passionate (read: Nerdy) gardener, I am a witness both of blessed abundance rising miraculous from the soil, and the reality and disappointment of hard baked desert alkali.

I am also mistress of a house. Houses and gardens theoretically look great together (as seen in Better Homes and Gardens and on Pinterest), but in real practice, they are barely compatible. Dirt recognizes no human boundaries. It is always creeping over thresholds, leaving smudgy footprints, throwing messy parties in corners and on furniture.

Especially…dirt is what it is; it resists reform. Only the most faithful sculpting and amending (read: Sweat. Cracked hands feet lips. Farmer’s tan) can improve it. Even then, Mother Nature has the final word. She imposes her own conditions and deadlines.

Around here, she dictates that spring and summer, as they whiz by on the wings of a planet spinning crazy fast through space, are the time for dirt work.

We tried to keep up. I thought we had spring well in hand, but it was over almost as soon as it began. Summer too—Opening on the down low with a funeral, gathering speed with Ezra’s leaving, rising in a quick, sweet crescendo for Maurya and Dennison’s wedding, and then slipping sneakily out the back door with Michaelyn and Meisha’s birthdays hidden in its pockets. I only have vague recollections of the Fourth; I’m pretty sure we worked in the dirt all that livelong day, til we lay exhausted on a nearby church lawn for fireworks. Nora and I lounged at the pool together a total of three times all summer (Nora counted). Our family (minus Ez, Maurya, and Dennison) hiked once (it was an epic and amazing day, though…I have to say). In certain moments, I feel either like the victim of grand larceny, or a bemused, love-stranded maiden—the kiss stolen, the swain disappearing in a crowd.

I guess either way it’s grand larceny.

Now Labor Day weekend is here; neighbors load trailers with four wheelers and boats; moms push strollers and stop and chat with each other on the corner. And Frank and I have been and will be shoveling, wheelbarrowing, and raking dirt, working desperately to get the front yard planted in grass (and my premature perennial and shrub refugees tucked safely in their borders) before irrigation shuts off the first week or so of October. In the last couple weeks, we’ve moved two monster truck loads of dirt—Frank says twenty cubic yards; I say a Texan acre. We’ve been moving truckloads of dirt off and on all summer. Mostly by wheelbarrow (our budget doesn’t have room for equipment rental—it barely has room for grass seed).

Until a neighbor down the street stopped on his way back from the mailbox, and offered his four wheeler and trailer. Embarrassed by our conspicuous vulnerability and our sweat stains, we hesitatingly accepted. He walked home and came back with the gig, bringing his little boy (just back from a soccer game) to help, and proceeded to fill his homemade (and oh so nifty!) trailer with dirt, shovelful by shovelful. Again and again, recounting as we shoveled together how his trailer had saved his bacon when he and his wife did their own yard. One trailer load is the equivalent of four or five wheelbarrows (a wheelbarrow the equivalent of almost thirty shovelfuls); he helped us move about six trailers full, his kiddo in tow (or maybe as figurehead?).
IMG_20160827_161456We were astounded by his generosity, though we shouldn’t have been… we have been getting that kind of love all season.

Earlier in the spring, another neighbor lent the family tractor (a communal heirloom), days and weeks at a time. One hot afternoon, a third neighbor manned the wheelbarrow for a couple of hours… just showed up with his broken English and took it out of my hands and got it done. Twice as fast as I could have. A fourth neighbor dug up iris and daylilies and gave me boxes of starts, insisting her son help me carry the boxes of transplants to my house (she also helped me make cream puffs for the reception). Neighbors passing on family bike rides and walks stop and offer encouragement and shared confidence in our project. Daily.

Beyond the dirt (or around it? despite it?), the help we received from our community, friends, and family with Ezra’s farewell and Maurya and Dennison’s reception was…well, frankly, beyond wonderful. Monumental. Humbling. Too much to mention here now (but I hope to mention it here later); so, so sweet to us.

So that in the end, it’s all good somehow. A thing of beauty. The dirt, the grand efforts, the blisters, the messes, the missed deadlines, the glimmering snippets of wonder and peace and celebration, the friendship and love woven throughout. It’s all good. And I’m glad.
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Written Sometime in January; there was snow.  Edited & Posted Much Later–end of August, windows open, hoping for a cool breeze after a hot day.  School starts tomorrow.

This morning I awoke to freshly fallen snow.   Which for me is usually a treat— promising festivity and frolic.  Except of course when we’re consumed with a construction project, and have to dig it out from under the snow.  Thankfully, the house is buttoned up and we are tucked cosily inside; I lay warm in bed in the early morning darkness and listened as the neighborhood snowplow scraped by.  What a luxury a snow plow can be!

Feeling mellow and at peace with the white world after getting girls off to school and spending an exuberant hour with my own human sized snow shovel (doing normal sidewalk snow removal), I luxuriated in a stop at the D.I. (local thrift store).  A favorite destination, convenient to my workaday errands. I can zip through in ten/fifteen-ish guilt free minutes, scanning shelves and aisles for Coveted Objects, and be on my way almost without skipping a beat.

But wait.  I cannot go on without first elaborating on Coveted objects. Irrelevant to the tale, probably…but gratifying to the writer.

Gnome, Small Monster, Elephant

Coveted Objects

 
(PS: if you read this, and you love me, and you happen to spot a Coveted Object and don’t want it for yourself, text/call/smoke signal me to come and at least have a look, before it disappears into the mists of time and becomes legend; untouchable, unattainable.)

1)  Sewing desks, pre-1950’s.  I have one, my grandmother’s.  I love it and naturally I want another.   Long legged, dainty, and top heavy, often with a picturesque, broken down sewing machine hidden inside.

There were no vintage sewing desks.

2)  Carnival Glass.  Blue (sometimes gold), sparkly, iridescent.  I hoard it without shame.  I love its history: the poor woman’s Tiffany, circa 1920-30-ish.  I don’t care if I’m buying a 70’s knock-off of a 20’s knock-off, either.  It’s pretty.  It’s nostalgic.  It’s welcome in my home.  

There was nothing sparkly and blue in the glass case reserved for precious things.

3) Vintage books.  Mmm…the colors and fragrance of parched decadence.  Words archaic, yet as wonderfully familiar as a favorite old aunt.  I would cry with joy over an early edition of anything written by E.B. White, James Thurber, Edna St. Vincent Millay.   A few weeks ago D.I.’s precious glass case sheltered a biography of Someone Important From Long Ago… I can’t remember who.  Beautifully bound and wonderfully aged, it was marked $200.  Frank leaned close and took a picture.  We gazed for awhile in awed silence, finally leaving the book to rest in peace under glass, Snow White waiting for her kiss.  

Vintage Books in a Row

There were no vintage books.

There were no vintage books, but there was a 1980-something Erma Bombeck (as a child of the 70’s who came of age a decade later, I refuse to recognize anything from the 80’s as vintage).  It was still in its glossy dust cover, the title printed in a faux cross stitch:  “Motherhood, The Second Oldest Profession”.  I chuckled and ruffled the pages.  Erma is a childhood friend;  I eavesdropped on her light-hearted conversations with my mother in the late 70’s and 80’s, devouring Mom’s copy of  “The Grass is Always Greener Over the Septic Tank” I found lying on the couch.  While reference to all things maternal seemed hypothetical to me then, today I remembered her domestic caricatures with surprising fondness, feeling almost homesick.  I wondered whether her saucy words would be germane to me, now.

Because now, motherhood is hardly remote.  And it certainly isn’t a joke.  It is immediate, intense, soul-expanding, gravity defying,  heartbreaking.   Especially, it is humbling…often in raw, impoverished ways.  I have riskily invested much of my emotional/psychological currency in its uncertain future.  People say you make yourself vulnerable when you take a One True Lover.  Yes.  Definitely.  Still, after 26 years of marriage (24+ of them spent as amateur parents), Frank’s loyalty, affection, and company beyond the hereafter seems relatively assured, while the loyalty and esteem—not to mention the company— of my five children (after a cumulative 4 years of pregnancy, 5 years of nursing, 15+ years of diapers, 26 years of adolescence, and 6 precarious years of Launching) remains yet to be determined.  Even for this weekend.  It changes almost daily.  A bit of a cliffhanger when one looks down the uncertain road ahead.

I skimmed Erma a bit.  In the introduction, she addresses the question that haunts every insecure  moment I’ve had as a parent:  What kind of mother am I?  (note: I’ve studiously trained myself to consciously dismiss the notion of “kinds” of people as a flat out lie, and yet…when I’m leveled by disaster, disgrace, disappointment, or dysfunction, this question is still, unfortunately, instinctive and unrelenting).

What kind of mother loses immunization records, birth certificates, library books?  Rarely catches up with laundry?  Shows up to parent teacher conferences covered in paint?  Screeches and growls?

Erma writes about women gossiping at a baby shower, scandalized over a mother forgetting her child in a laundromat restroom.  What kind of mother would…?  She muses:

“It was a familiar phrase.  Ten years and three children earlier, I had used it myself with just the right blend of shock and disapproval.

Now, I personally knew seven mothers who had tried the same thing.”

She continues:  

“Mother” has always been a generic term synonymous with love, devotion, and sacrifice….They’re the Walter Cronkites of the human race…infallible, virtuous, without flaws and conceived without original sin…

“Immediately following birth, every new mother drags from her bed and awkwardly pulls herself up on the pedestal provided for her.

Some adjust easily to the saintly image.  They come to love the adulation and bask in the flocks that come to pay homage at their feet on Mother’s Day.

Some can’t stand the heights and jump off, never to be seen again.

But most mothers just try to figure out what they’re supposed to do– and how they can do it in public.”

I was sold.  For two dollars, Erma would be mine; I wasn’t going to let her go, no matter how un-vintage and dowdy her dust cover.   As I ambled to the cash register (a freshly fallen snow day gives one permission to amble), I thumbed through the book again.  An inscription just inside the cover caught my eye…this book must have been a gift!  Maybe from a tried and weathered mother to her daughter, sharing the fun.  I looked closely, paying actual attention to the handwritten words.  It was dated 1983.  Someone had written, “For Christine–Who is about to live where I write.  You’ll love it!  Trust me.  Love– Erma.”

PS:
Convinced I now own a veritable treasure, I shared it with my family after/ok during dinner.  I opened my new collectible and read Chapter 3 out loud (“What kind of a mother would…go an entire day without shaving?”, wherein a stay-at-home dad named Frank became the first suburban mother in Rochester with a mustache who wasn’t on estrogen).  I laughed til I couldn’t read…particularly the paragraphs where an epic winter storm has closed school for ten days ”and he was charged with the responsibility of keeping three children from killing one another”, finding himself saying nothing while watching Teddy force a button up his nose, and then, as Caroline colored his marriage license, “all he could mumble was, ‘Stay in the lines.’”

Stay in the lines.  Also, when was the last time I heard of a kiddo named Teddy or Caroline?  Barely one generation past the Kennedys, and we’ve already forgotten them.

The dust jacket is irrelevant now, by the way.  One probably shouldn’t eat corn muffins dripping with hillbilly jelly when one is reading Erma out loud to her family.

Or maybe one should.

PPS:  
Erma appeals to me partly because she dismisses my culture’s unrealistic, painful expectations of motherhood.  Protesting an impossible standard.   And yet, of all the things I do, motherhood is definitely one thing that I long to do really, really well.  I’d like to get it perfectly right, someday.  Somehow.

It’s just that it’s a work in progress.  I’m a work in progress.  It would be so tragic for me (and for my kids) if one of my bad days was chosen as the final result.  The pop quiz that counts for 98.6% of the grade,  absolute proof of the “kind” of mother that I am.  While part of me instinctively worries that I’m a hopeless case when I’m lost in one of those awful snapshots , there’s another  part that protests indignantly.  “Wait!  I’m not done yet!  Do over!  This isn’t all there is to me!”   Deep in my soul, in quiet moments, I hold tightly to the belief that God at least is infinitely more generous.  That He doesn’t condemn me in the moment, but regards me patiently, waiting for a distant, gradual accumulation.  One that takes into account my intentions, sincere desires, broken heart, and best efforts—giving them at least as much weight as the occasional fumble or ugliness.  And that all along, from now to the brim of my lifetime’s sum total, He is willing and eager to add His grace to the mix.

Signed by Erma
 

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My Favorite Son

IMG_20160612_185544 (2) Potentially there’s all sorts of things wrong with this post, starting with its abrupt appearance after two years’ unexplained silence here, and ending of course with the title, “My Favorite Son”.   Seriously!  What kind of mother has favorites? *

Elinor of Aquitaine, maybe.  Or maybe not, depending on the historian.   I accidentally painted Elinor  when my favorite son Ezra was a baby.  Actually I was trying to paint a serene and musing Mary, but a friend dropped by as the painting was drying and decided it looked more regal and Medieval than serene, proclaiming it instead a wonderful likeness of Queen Elinor.  We can decide these things, after all.  Being women.  Endowed with imagination, insight,  and a knack for grand pronouncements. [click to continue…]

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